“Ford wasn’t owner of the Lions very long before he managed to alienate one of the best coaches ever to roam a Detroit sideline.”
Coaches are hired to be fired. With that, I’m sure no one can argue. Even if they’re minding their own business as assistants one moment, and thrust into the big chair the next.
It’s convenient and handy to tap an assistant on the shoulder and say, “OK, Charlie – your turn now.”
The Pistons were terrific at that, back in the day. It was a repeated cycle, every couple of years or so, back in the 1960s and ‘70s. They’d fire the head coach, then promote from within. Then that dude would get canned some two years hence, and another anonymous assistant would get the gig. And so on.
Ray Scott described his ascension to the head job this way, after being tabbed to replace his boss, the deposed Earl Lloyd.
“Bittersweet. Like watching your mother-in-law drive over a cliff in your new Cadillac.”
Why bother with the hassle of interviewing candidates and doing due diligence, when your next sucker is already in employ?
Yet sometimes this route can hardly be avoided.
I’m not sure if George Wilson was in attendance the night that his boss, Buddy Parker, quit the Lions. Someone older than me who should know has the answer to that question, I’m sure.
But whether he was there or not, Wilson surely must have been taken aback when he was, in an instant, made the Lions’ head coach in 1957.
Parker was speaking at a pre-season banquet – one of those affairs designed to get the denizens of the city fired up about the upcoming football campaign. And it was there that he dropped his bombshell.
Citing a perceived inability on his part to properly motivate and control his players, Parker – who led the Lions to championships in 1952 and ’53 and a runner-up finish in 1954 – told the stunned banquet audience that he was committing a self-ziggy: he was quitting as Lions coach. Right then and there, despite coming off a 9-3 season in 1956.
Wilson was handy, as one of Parker’s trusty assistants. There wasn’t really any time to look for a replacement, so there you are.
It worked out pretty well, after all. The Lions won the 1957 championship, with a backup quarterback (Tobin Rote, subbing for the injured Bobby Layne) and a backup coach (Wilson).
Parker ended up as coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1958. Apparently he found those players easier to motivate and to control. Oh, and he traded for a new quarterback early in that season – fleecing the quarterback’s former team in the process.
Bobby Layne followed Parker to Pittsburgh, mysteriously and abruptly traded by the Lions a couple games into the season. And Bobby, legend has it, cast a spell on the Lions, allegedly declaring that they wouldn’t win another championship for at least the next 50 years.
Yeah, you’re right: that trade happened fifty years ago, and then some.
Wilson had a down year in ’58 as the Lions suffered from a championship hangover, and tried to deal with the shocking cashiering of their football and drinking leader, Layne. The record was 4-7-1.
But by 1960, the Lions were winners again. From ’60 to ’64, the team’s overall record was 38-26-4. This included a terrific 11-3 mark in 1962, when Wilson’s rapport with his players was at its zenith. Defensive tackle Alex Karras once called Wilson, in retrospect, one of the finest men he’s ever known.
Then Bill Ford Sr. got involved.
From front to back: Lions QB Bobby Layne, head coach Buddy Parker, and assistant George Wilson look on at the Briggs Stadium action
Ford became sole owner of the Lions in 1964. It’s tempting to just end it right there, leaving you with the stale, “And the rest is history.” The rest, yes – but first there was the start of the rest.
Perhaps it was the desire to play with his new toy. Maybe it was some sort of Napoleonic way of asserting power. Regardless, Ford wasn’t owner of the Lions very long before he managed to alienate one of the best coaches ever to roam a Detroit sideline.
Ford told Wilson after the ’64 season that certain assistants would have to be fired if he was to keep his job as head coach. And Wilson mulled it over, decided that he wasn’t going to do that to his loyal staff, and told Ford to shove it. Wilson, too, committed a self-ziggy.
Harry Gilmer became the Lions’ new coach. He lasted two tumultuous seasons, the last of which ended with Harry being pelted with snowballs by the Tiger Stadium crowd after the season finale.
Ford had another chance to get it right, though. And he did, promoting another assistant. This time it was Hall of Fame linebacker Joe Schmidt, who was just one year into his new career as linebackers coach when he became yet another assistant minding his own business who was thrust into the spotlight.
Schmidt stumbled at first, then displayed a real flair for this head coaching thing. His Lions teams became a league power, built, as expected with Schmidt at the helm, on a terrific defense. There was a playoff appearance in 1970. It was no cakewalk when you played the Detroit Lions.
Until Schmidt lost a power struggle with GM Russ Thomas and committed his own self-ziggy, in 1973.
Ford hasn’t gotten it right since, really, when it comes to picking a coach.
The Lions are in need of another coach, right on schedule. They last about three years or so anymore. The last man with any real tenure was Wayne Fontes, who survived eight-plus seasons as head coach. There’s great indictment in the realization that Fontes’ below-.500 era is now looked at fondly by today’s Lions fans as the salad days of Detroit pro football.
This week and next, Ford’s newly-promoted minions – President Tom Lewand and GM Martin Mayhew – will fly across the country, interviewing candidates to take over their mess of a football team. They are the ones entrusted to do what Ford himself has been unable to do for over four decades: find the right man to coach the Detroit Lions.
Yet Ford had himself two such men: George Wilson and Joe Schmidt. He ticked off one, and disappointed the other – so much so that they told Ford to take his job and shove it.
If only Ford would pull a Buddy Parker, huh?